Mark Twain on Writing

By: Jeff Herman

I'm confident that Mark Twain had a lot of interesting advice for writers, and that much of it is documented. However, I have never read or researched any of it. But you got to admit it sounds like a darn good book and it got you to open my blog, and might even get me some SEO mileage. Knowing that Twain was a man who wrote and spoke for a living, he might not mind this little gimmick to use him. He might have even applauded so long as it didn't distort him or his legacy, which isn't my intent.

"Write like you've never been rejected, and never will be." Doesn't that sound like something the great man would say? Let's be clear, the evidence shows that publishing was no easier for writers then than it is now. Herman Melville, America's Premier Writer, had to earn his living from farming. He complained about competition from legions of lame romance writers, and died in obscurity. Same can be said for Emily Dickinson and many other hyper-focused scribes from the past. For sure, Twain had a unique and timeless talent that couldn't be dismissed by the gatekeepers of yesterday, or today.

Twain was quick witted and known to smile, but deep within hovered unhealed psychic wounds and unchallenged demons that made themselves more known as the years went by. His final work of fiction, and maybe his least read work, was a dark attack against the concept that life is meaningful. Though the book contained his trademark sense of irony, it offered no belly laughs. Perhaps a discerning view of the man's photographed face can reveal the emotional layers that made him both brilliant and miserable.

You can't really know a person by what they say, but you can know a lot by what they invent. In Twain we see a man in love with youth and uncomplicated adults. Twain explains childhood the way Edison explains electricity. Huck and Tom were the avatars of our species. We don't know what becomes of them as they become men, and we probably don't want to know. Jim the slave is a controversial figure today due to America's uncured racist history. Yet, Jim is one of Twain's few adult heroes due to the power of his heart and unconquered spirit.

If I were to ask Twain what he had to say to the writers of today, I imagine pithy but loaded statements, such as:

"Talk to yourself and write it down".

"Write about them you love and them you hate. Everyone else is boring"

"Don't make up characters; know them more truthfully than you know your soul, because they are your soul".

"When you can't be in your skin, be in your pages."

"A writer isn't a god; the characters create the writer".

"Where is life? Ask a writer. They know that it begins when they enter their dreams".

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